Friday 14 May 2010

Leaders & Followers

A war host at their back: The anti-mining march up Auckland's Queen Street on May Day, in terms of providing powerful images, was much more effective than the photographs of "Warrior John" Key in Afghanistan.

JOHN KEY in body-armour. Thirty-thousand protesters marching up Queen Street. What are these images saying to us? Both events were deliberately contrived to convey a powerful message. So, what was it, in the language of symbols, that the image-makers were hoping to communicate – and to whom?

The first image, of "Warrior John", is all about the leader facing danger. Here is a man who, in his own words, is "not prepared to send people to a destination [that] I am not prepared to come to myself."

In propaganda terms it’s an old trick. As long ago as the First World War government publicists realised the value of having the nation’s leaders photographed in solemn (and potentially dangerous) communion with the troops. King George V did it. Prime Minister Lloyd George did it. Even New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Bill Massey, did it. Wartime presidents and prime ministers have been doing it ever since.

Symbolically speaking, the image taps into the deepest wells of human memory. Since men combined to bring down woolly mammoths one hundred millennia ago, leadership and danger have, conceptually-speaking, marched hand-in-hand. At its most basic level, leadership is about persuading people to trust you with their lives.

War-correspondent, Dexter Filkins, writes about leadership in The Forever War. With the US Marines "Bravo Company" in Falluja, he shadowed Captain Read Omohundro:

"It was an odd thing about leadership; people talked about it and CEOs wrote books about it. But there was nothing like facing death to feel it in the flesh. It was as if Omohundro wore a mask, and with that mask he gave everyone more courage than they knew they had."

Anyone who has seen combat says the same. Leaders are the people other people follow.

Will the image of Key in body armour encourage us to go on following him?

Probably not. New Zealanders no longer look upon the conflict in Afghanistan as their fight. In fact, polling suggests that a majority of voters would like to see, at the very least, the combat elements of New Zealand’s contribution withdrawn. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, the Taliban is not regarded as an existential threat.

In the aftermath of 9/11, with the images of the twin towers falling still vivid in their minds, New Zealanders were more than willing to throw in their lot with the aggrieved Americans. They were not alone. A visceral desire to avenge the victims of Al Qaeda’s devastating terrorist attack send military contingents flying towards Afghanistan from all over the world.

But that was eight years ago. Al Qaeda survives. Osama Bin Laden still lives. The Taliban have not been defeated. The democracy we promised to bring to the Afghan people has not materialised. And, according to The Sunday Star Times’ Jon Stephenson, 64 percent of the people we’ve supposedly been "assisting" in Bamiyan province don’t think very highly of our efforts.

In an existential struggle – like the Second World War – images of the leader at the front are extremely effective. That’s because, in an existential war, the troops on the ground are, literally, the nation’s children in arms, and the leader is there representing their parents and siblings back home. When they see him reach out to shake the hand of a soldier, it is their son or daughter, their brother or sister, that he is touching. His hand is their hand. The identification is deeply emotional and unequivocal: perfect propaganda.

In the case of Afghanistan, however, the emotional connection is weak, and the level of equivocation high. Instead of coming across as heroic, Key in body armour looks faintly ridiculous. As a consequence, most New Zealanders are going to decode the official images with their heads, not their hearts. His meeting with the troops will be perceived for what it actually was: a photo opportunity.

The contrast with the May-day anti-mining demonstration up Queen Street could hardly be more telling.

Here, too, the imagery stirs memories lodged deep into what Carl Jung called "the collective unconscious". For all humans, the sight of a large body of people moving purposefully towards them is invariably registered as a threat. What they see is a war-host – someone’s enemies on the march. And the first question they ask themselves is: "Who are they marching against? Is it me – or someone else?"

The protest demonstration is, thus, a double-edged weapon. It’s intended to frighten and intimidate those whose actions it opposes, while inspiring and encouraging those who share the demonstrators’ views.

That’s why estimates of the true size of an obviously large demonstration are so contentious. Those targeted are naturally concerned to minimise its significance. If they can make the march smaller, it not only becomes less threatening to people on their own side, but also less inspiring to their opponents.

It’s one of the first things protest organisers learn: never put a figure on the expected turn-out. Failure to meet a stated target will invariably be represented by the news media as proof that the organisers’ have inaccurately gauged public opinion. Further proof, perhaps, of the political demonstration’s double-edged character: "Suppose they organised a protest march – and nobody came."

But that certainly wasn’t the case on May-day in Queen Street.

The Government and its supporters were quite clearly shocked by its size, its energy, and even more importantly by the broad cross-section of the electorate represented in its ranks.

For Greenpeace and Forest & Bird – the demonstration’s organisers – the goal of intimidating and frightening their pro-mining opponents was achieved with stunning effectiveness. Even more stunning, however, was the environmental lobby’s success in inspiring and encouraging its supporters.

Crucial to that success was their choice of Lucy Lawless and Robyn Malcolm as the "faces" of the protest. Lawless is, of course, "Xena – The Warrior Princess", and Malcolm, in her role as Outrageous Fortune’s gutsy matriarch, Cheryl West, represents the quintessential "Waitakere Woman" – the precise demographic National cannot afford to lose if it is to win a second term.

In a curious way, therefore, the two images we have been discussing blur and merge. "Warrior John" turns out to have no more substance, in reality, than Princess Xena or Outrageous Cheryl.

The crucial political difference, however, is that while Key had a camera in his face, Lawless and Malcolm had a war-host at their back.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 13 May 2010.


Anonymous said...

How many Germans in the immediate post war occupation didn't 'think highly' of the allied troops? Would this be any reason not to have invaded to overthrow the Nazi regime. According this this rationale then yes.

Lazy reasoning

Chris Trotter said...

To Anonymous:

The invasion of Afghanistan was almost certainly illegal under international law, although, such was the global sense of outrage at Al Qaeda's 9/11 attack, that very few people, at the time, cared that the rights of those who had sheltered Osama Bin Laden were being violated.

Interestingly, the arrival of foreign soldiers, far from sparking resistance, was greeted with relief by all those Afghans who resented the reactionary theocratic administration of the Taliban.

The great difference between the ISAF occupation of Afghanistan and the Allied Occupation of Germany is that the latter was planned-for and properly resourced years in advance.

The Allies deposed (and in many cases punished) the most senior figures in the Nazi regime, and moved with speed to establish a new and effective German Government (at least in the Western occupation zones).

Within four years of the end of the Second World War the Federal Republic of Germany was up-and-running.

The ISAF, by contrast, has been in Afghanistan since early 2002, and the UN's Regional Reconstruction Teams have been there for about the same length of time.

It is, therefore, entirely reasonable - after 8 years! - for the Afghan people to ask two fundamental questions of their "liberators".

1) "How much longer do you intend to stay?"

2) "Why can't you 'reconstruct' Afghanistan according to the priorities and specifications of the country's own people?"

If, after 7 years, the people of Bamiyan Province remain unconvinced that the Kiwi RRT is truly meeting their needs, then surely it is time we reassessed our mission in that part of the World?

If, after 7 years of Allied Occupation, the German Government's authority only extended a few miles beyond the Bonn city limits. And if Nazi IED's were still killing US troops in 1952, wouldn't journalists have started asking searching questions about the effectiveness of Allied policy?

Lastly, Afghanistan, unlike Nazi Germany, has never posed an existential threat - either to its neighbours, or to the rest of the world.

The apprehension of Bin Laden and the destruction of Al Qaeda should have been left to an international police operation. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan - ostensibly to achive those objectives - has not only proved to be ineffective, it has made matters worse.

Failure to attack and defeat Nazi Germany, on the other hand, would have radically altered the strategic ballance of the entire world - and not for the better. The war to destroy Nazism was a war that simply had to be fought.

You're comparing apples and oranges, Anonymous, and that is not just lazy - it's also faulty - reasoning.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris

The resurgence of militant political Islam which you allude to in your article has its roots all the way back to the seventh century. Significantly, the Islamic calendar is dated not from Mohammed's birth, or his death, or his first religious revelation, but rather from his first political and military action.

9/11, 7/7, through to the most recent Times Square bomb are simply a modern expression of an ancient ideology.

The West including the USA, Britain and New Zealand have grown tired of the 'war on terror'. We would like to move on to more interesting things now. What we don't fully appreciate is that Al Qaeda and militant Islamists don't care that President Obama has been elected to the White House, or that his father was a Muslim, or that he is extending the hand of friendship to the Islamic world.

He is an infidel just like the rest of us, and the war continues.

When your enemy seeks to engage in low tech ways off the battle field, then it comes down to a question of who has the greatest 'will'. They have rightly picked that we don't have the stomach for this battle long term, whereas they do.

You cannot beat an ideology with tanks and guns. You need a more powerful idea. The West had one once, but we have abandoned it for secular statism. This will prove to be a feeble defense in the face of a religious ideology.

On your second point, who of us want's mining in our back yard? However, who of us want's to live in a country where we continue to spend more than we earn, and we cannot pay our bills?

It seems to me that we can choose to reduce our lifestyle and demand for Government services, or we rev up the bulldozers. The choice is ours.

Kind regards

Tiger Mountain said...

In the spirit of the post, and as a participant in numerous Q. St marches, 1979, 81, & 82 in particular, re union, 81 tour and nuke free nz matters; I put my case for a 50,000 crowd on Uno de Mayo.

The rule of thumb is when viewed from above, if the tail of the march is still leaving Customs St when the head has reached Aotea Sq and takes up all lanes, then it is a big march, 30,000 at least. It then comes to spacing and accurate counting. The Greenpeace mining march extended past Aotea Sq. (closed) and halfway up the Queen St hill as people filed (or tried to) into Myers Park. Quite a few drifted off at that point as I observed. Given the reasonably close packing I’m punting for up to 50 thou.

Using the above criteria and marshalls counting rows resulted in a call of 60,000 for the 1982 FOL/combined unions (Piggy piss off) march which took several months to organise, pre digital era, including buses etc. The cops and NZ Herald usually under estimate by 50%, except for causes such as the ‘childbeaters’ march when some poor sap was reputed to have spent several hundred thousand$ in the wake of the referendum, and got a crowd under 1000, yet some media tried to say 4-5000. Even generously framed video put the lie to that.

The ‘dark’ kiwis have only really come out in big numbers once in the so called “Tania Harris” march, the turnout at the EFA rallies damp farts in comparison. Conservatives often have a problem with daylight it seems.

So size is not everything, though it reveals the measurers as well as the measured.

Xiao Banfa said...

The Islamic calendar is dated from not it's first military action but from the exodus of the believers from of Mecca to Medina.

It's actually quite poignant and noble. The righteous muslims leaving behind a city which was driven insane by greed, selfishness and lack of moral parameters.

The muslims fought later on because they had to for the survival of their fledgling Ummah.

Olwyn said...

@ Brendan: your either/or comment on mining is a false dichotomy; mining is not our only option for making a living as a country, and many commentators are saying that we would make very little out of it anyway: foreign mining companies would take most of the profits off-shore, and even on the employment front they are more likely to use their own specialised teams than our unemployed.

Anonymous said...

Fred Flinstone would manage the conservation estates better than those jurassic neo-liberal MPs, stalking the corridors of power. They really are trapped in a time warp, with no vision on moving this country foward.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should read your history books again. Germany was already a unified nation a common language and culture with institutions and laws while Afghanistan is almost completely the opposite. Therefore the expect the same results within a similar timeframe is based on naivety and an ignorance of what is required.

Maybe the allies could leave if the afghans answered questions such as for how long will you continue to harbour terrorist groups which seek to use your country as a base to launch hostile operations against us, be the world's largest exporter of heroin and in general stop fighting amongst yourselves and get your shit together.

Anonymous said...

Well it was orchestrated by media (which Mr Trotter is a card carrying member & profiteer of) in the first place, as is the backdown by National, part of the wider plan.

The economic development of New Zealand natural resources is neither automatically good or bad for the economy, & if done properly would be very good for NZ society, although it is probable in the current environment that would not be the case. Same goes for specific use of mining in this type of economy, it could either be sustainable & beneficial or not, depending on how it is done in a wider context.

Make no mistake, it was a march, in part supporting the current anemic servitude economy. The masses are lost in politics.

RedLogix said...

Well mining in of itself is not the problem. Most folk would be more accepting if:

1. The industry cleaned up the mess it has already left behind. Show how well you can do this and we might have grounds to believe you should allowed to dig new mines.

2. Keep their grubby money-making mitts off the most precious parts of our unique wilderness. It's off limits for a reason. We value it because it is untouched and unmodified. Even if we never go there, we want to know that it exists.

ankara nakliyat said...

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Anonymous said...


Opponents of the Afghan war point to the killing by American troops of an Afghan parliamentarian’s relative on Friday, and the illegal, botched night raid that killed two pregnant women, a teenage girl, and two Afghan officials in February.

Outspoken Afghan activist and former member of the Parliament, Malalai Joya has called for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, pointing out that Americans “have not been told the truth…[The U.S. has] replaced the fundamentalist rule of Taliban with another fundamentalist regime of warlords. [That is] what your soldiers are dying for.”

Anonymous said...

"Outspoken Afghan activist and former member of the Parliament, Malalai Joya has called for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, pointing out that Americans “have not been told the truth…[The U.S. has] replaced the fundamentalist rule of Taliban with another fundamentalist regime of warlords. [That is] what your soldiers are dying for.”

So what? Should NZ/Australia withdrawal from East Timor and leave it to the Indonesia? Should the UN leave Kosovo for the Serbs to take over?

Once thing I do know, as soon as the Allies leave then this women's going to be on the first flight out of Kabul because the Tablibs don't take lightly to outspoken women.